Sen. Mel Martinez's announcement on Tuesday that he will not seek re-election in 2010 creates a coveted open seat that will reshuffle the lineup for both Democrats and Republicans. But the more fascinating question faces the Republicans: Will the party that lost considerable ground in Florida this year respond to the voters' message and embrace a more moderate candidate, or will it retreat to its most conservative corner with a candidate who emphasizes social issues and fans fears about taxes and crime?
Martinez has been the face of both sides of that coin. In his 2004 Republican primary campaign, he accused opponent Bill McCollum of appealing to "the new darling of the homosexual extremists" because McCollum supported a hate crimes bill. The Times rescinded its recommendation of Martinez because of such slurs, which Martinez stopped airing. In the Senate, he has opposed the expansion of embryonic stem cell research and foolishly co-sponsored legislation to give the federal courts jurisdiction over the Terri Schiavo feeding tube case. As expected, the former Republican National Committee chairman's voting record closely mirrors the Bush administration's positions.
Yet there is a more appealing side to Martinez that reflects his personal warmth and independence. On Tuesday, he emotionally recounted his travels from Cuba as a teenager to foster homes in this country to a successful law practice and public office. As Florida and the nation continues to grow more diverse, he is a Hispanic role model with a friendly demeanor who is more comfortable being pragmatic than ideological. Yet that pragmatism angered more conservative members of his own party. Perhaps his most impressive effort was his work for a broad bipartisan immigration bill in 2006 and 2007 that was blocked by House Republicans. He also has defended Florida on a variety of fronts, working with Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson to protect the state's beaches from offshore drilling and voting to override a Bush veto of a water projects bill that included badly needed money for the Everglades restoration. Now that he is freed from running for re-election, Martinez should spend the next two years helping advance bipartisan solutions to the big issues facing the state and the nation.
Martinez said the call to family and friends in Orlando is stronger now than the call to public service. But opinion polls showed he would be vulnerable in 2010, and his close ties to Bush would not be the asset they once were. His decision also adds more fuel to the discussion about the direction of the Republican Party. Those debates have been going on nationally following President-elect Barack Obama's victory and Democratic gains in Congress. But they also have been going on behind the scenes in Florida, where Obama won and Democrats picked up another congressional seat, a legislative seat and a greater advantage in voter registration.
Florida and the country have shifted directions since Martinez narrowly won the race for an open Senate seat in 2004. As the seat opens up again in 2010, how will Republicans respond?